Hudson’s Bay Company Archives – About HBCA

Hudson’s Bay Company Archives History

From its founding by Royal Charter in 1670 and throughout its history, HBC has kept careful and detailed records of its activities, growth and expansion. Many of these records have survived, leaving a legacy of information of great significance. In the 1920s HBC’s head office in London, England, began to arrange and describe its records to make them more accessible for company and scholarly use. In 1970, HBC’s head office was moved to Canada. In 1974 the company put its records on loan with the Archives of Manitoba and twenty years later, on 27 January 1994, the records were officially donated to the Province.

The vault at the HBC Archives in London
The vault at the
HBC Archives in London
An HBCA vault in Winnipeg today
An HBCA vault in
Winnipeg today

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Hudson's Bay Company Archives Holdings

The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) holdings consist of records of all media, including textual records, still images (photographs and documentary art), cartographic records (maps, plans and charts), architectural drawings, and moving images and sound records (film, video and audio recordings). In addition, the HBCA Library holds an extensive collection of published works that are related to Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) or were written based on research in HBCA.

Textual Records

HBCA is remarkable for both its size and continuity. The corporate textual records in the collection were created by decision makers in cities such as London and Montreal, clerks and accountants at remote fur trade posts, ship's captains and explorers, and many others. They take up more than 1,500 linear metres of shelf space in the HBCA vaults. The earliest HBC record in the archives is a minute book dating from 1671, recording decisions made at the meetings of HBC's Governor and Committee. With the exception of a four-year gap, all the minute books from 1671 to 1970 are in HBCA.

In addition to the records of Hudson's Bay Company, HBCA's collection of private records includes diaries, letters and research notes. Private records provide an excellent complement to the official records of HBC documenting, for instance, personal experiences within HBC and at its various posts.

Still Images

The photographic holdings of Hudson's Bay Company Archives total approximately 130,000 images. Included are a number of outstanding individual collections by both professional and amateur photographers. The photographs range in date from the 1860s to the 1980s; most are post-1900.

The largest collection, with over 55,000 images, is the Hudson's Bay House Library photograph collection. It was created and maintained primarily for the use of The Beaver magazine, which was originally a company publication, as well as for various other promotional activities. The collection was transferred to the Archives in 1987 and provides a visual record of the business of Hudson's Bay Company: its employees, associated personalities, fur trade and retail store establishments, activities, as well as Indigenous peoples and their cultures.

The HBCA documentary art is a small collection of drawings, paintings, advertising art and calendars. Some of the material was commissioned by Hudson’s Bay Company or created by employees. The collection also includes pieces purchased for display purposes or as reference material as part of the Hudson’s Bay House Library. These works primarily document HBC’s operations and activities, with a strong emphasis on employees, posts, ships and events.

Cartographic Records and Architectural Drawings

Hudson's Bay Company Archives has the largest holding of fur trade maps in North America. There are more than 12,000 maps, charts, plans and architectural drawings, dating between the years 1563 and about 1982.

The manuscript maps are almost exclusively by company employees including many well known in Canadian history: Samuel Hearne, Philip Turnor, Peter Fidler, David Thompson and Joseph Pemberton. A number of Indigenous people drew maps or provided information to company employees, in particular Peter Fidler. One of the most significant is a map entitled The Different Tribes that inhabit on the East & West side of the Rocky Mountains by Ac ko mok ki, a Blackfoot chief, dated 1801.

HBCA’s published cartographic holdings include more than fifty maps from the internationally known Arrowsmith firm in London, which were based on information received from HBC employees, and R. Seale's Map of North America with Hudson's Bay and Straights, Anno 1748 (HBC donated the only other known copy of this map to the British Museum). There are also a number of world atlases in the holdings, dating from as early as 1733.

The architectural drawings include 18th century fortifications of the forts around Hudson Bay, 20th century department stores, ships' plans, and some unexpected items such as the Prince Rupert Golf Course in Edmonton, which HBC operated in the 1930s. The majority of the drawings are blueprints and many are in manuscript and whiteprint form. They include the work of some of the most outstanding architectural firms in Canada, for example, Burke, Horwood & White, and Moody and Moore. Also represented are interior design firms such as Taussig & Flesch, and ship building firms in England, Scotland and North America.

Moving Images and Sound Records

Hudson's Bay Company Archives has over 140 motion picture film and videotape recordings and 500 sound recordings in its holdings. Film records include various promotional productions created by HBC as well as raw footage shot by employees in different locations in the 1930s, which provides images of HBC's posts and ships, as well as the people, geography and wildlife of the North.

Most notably, the holdings include a rare collection of silent films that portray northern Inuit and First Nations communities and HBC’s operations across northern Canada from 1919-1939. Some of the most outstanding footage can be found in what was once part of a two hour silent film, Romance of the Far Fur Country, that was commissioned by Hudson’s Bay Company in 1920 to celebrate its 250th anniversary. These films were preserved by the British Film Institute in London, England, from 1956 until 2011, when they were returned to Canada to be reunited with the rest of the archives after more than 50 years of being apart.

Sound recordings include oral history collections and radio broadcasts of HBC events and commercials. Many of the oral history recordings consist of interviews with retired HBC employees and focus on HBC’s 20th century operations and their personal experiences with the company.

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Arrangement and Description of Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Corporate records arrangement – series system

Beginning in the early 2000s, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives adopted a series system of arrangement and description based on a combination of the Australian series system and the Canadian series approach developed at the Archives of Ontario. The system is built into a descriptive database called Keystone and has required the re-description of many existing Hudson’s Bay Company Archives records. A significant aspect of the series system is that it provides a way to capture how records are created by whom, in what context and for what reason because information about the records is kept separately from information about the creators of records. As a result, the series system more accurately captures the complex administrative histories, organizational relationships and records creation processes of Hudson’s Bay Company.

For record creators at each level of Hudson’s Bay Company’s hierarchy, such as post, district and department, authority records are created which explain the history, dates of existence and function of each entity. Authority records are also linked to predecessor and successor bodies as well as to controlling and subordinate entities. As a result, it is possible to identify where a record-creating entity fits within Hudson’s Bay Company’s corporate structure and to see how that structure evolves over time. This knowledge is essential to understanding how the company operated as well as how records were created.

The records created by each entity are described by “series” – i.e. records which result from a common activity or function or are of a similar form. Descriptions of series are linked to descriptions of record creators within Hudson’s Bay Company and include details such as quantity, media, dates of creation, and information about the ‘scope and content’ including why records were created, for what purpose, and what they contain. Within each series, records are further described at the item-level, where information such as location code and microfilm number is identified.

Non-corporate records arrangement – fonds/collection system

The private records (i.e. non-corporate records) held in Hudson’s Bay Company Archives are described as "fonds" or "collections." The term "fonds" is used to indicate all of the records created or acquired by a particular creator. The term "collection" is used to describe materials gathered purposefully on the basis of some criteria (subject, age, geographic interest, etc.). As with the corporate records, information about record creators and information about the records is kept separately and linked.

Previous classification schemes

During the 1920s–1930s a classification scheme was developed for the records kept by the Hudson's Bay Company Archives in London. Records were organized by section, class, type and piece which were represented as an alpha-numeric document reference number.

In the 1980s, many twentieth century records were organized by record group (RG) categories. These categories were developed to be assigned to 20th century records, but in the end not all of them were used.

For more information about the original classification scheme and the record group categories, consult Deidre Simmon’s publication entitled Keepers of the Record: the History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston, 2007).

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Suggested reading about the Hudson's Bay Company Archives

  • Briggs, Elizabeth and Anne Morton. Biographical Resources at the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Volumes 1 & 2. Winnipeg: Westgarth, 1996-2003.
  • Craig, Joan. "Three Hundred Years of Records." The Beaver, Autumn 1970, pp. 65-70.
  • Harris, Geraldine Alton. "An Archival Administrative History of the Northern Stores Department, Hudson’s Bay Company, 1959-1987." MA thesis, University of Manitoba, 1994.
  • Leveson Gower, R. H. G. "The Archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company." The Beaver, December 1933, pp. 40-42, 64.
  • Koppel, Tom. "Treasure-trove of History." Canadian Geographic, 111 (5), Oct.-Nov. 1991, pp. 70-76.
  • Martin, Jean. "Canadian Chronicles." Imperial Oil Review, Spring 1998, pp. 22-27.
  • Ross, Alex, and Anne Morton. "The Hudson’s Bay Company and Its Archives." Business Archives, no. 51, 1985, pp. 17-39.
  • Simmons, Deidre. Keepers of the Record: the History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston, 2007.
  • Simmons, Deidre. "The Archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company," Archivaria, no. 42, Fall 1996, pp. 68-78.
  • Simmons, Deidre. "The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives: The Role of the Hudson’s Bay Record Society". Epilogue Volume II, No. 1, 1996, pp. 1-13.
  • Simmons, Deidre. "Custodians of a Great Inheritance": An Account of the Making of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, 1920-1974." MA thesis, University of Manitoba, 1994.
  • Simmons, Deidre. "Annals of the Fur Trade: The Making of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives." The Beaver, June/July 1994, pp. 4-12.

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